- Sisters in Solitude
- Two Traditions of Buddhist Monastic Ethics for Women
- A Comparative Analysis of the Chinese Dharmagupta and the Tibetan
Mulasarvastivada Bhiksuni Pratimoksa Sutras
- by Bhikshuni Karma Lekshe Tsomo
- State University of New York Press, Albany. 1996. $19.95
- ISBN 0-7914-3090-1
Reviewed by Dharmapala.
Sisters in Solitude is a presentation of translations and analyses of two
of the traditions of precepts for the fully-ordained Buddhist nun. The two traditions
presented are the Dharmagupta lineage in the form of a joint translation produced with
Bhikshuni Heng Ching Shih and the Muulasarvaastivaada lineage in the form of a translation
by the author.
For those who are unfamiliar with the background of the extant Buddhist ordination
lineages, it is helpful to realize that the Dharmagupta precepts practiced by the
Bhikshuni communities in Taiwan, Hong Kong, mainland China, Korea, and Sino-buddhist
enclaves in the West represent the only higher ordination lineage available to any
Buddhist woman wishing to become a fully-ordained nun.
The other tradition of interest in this work is the Mulasarvastivada precept lineage
now most usually associated with Tibetan monks. This would ordinarily be the ordination
lineage of choice for Buddhist women whose understanding of Buddhist doctrine has come
through contact with those schools. Although this would seem logical and obvious, it is
not possible because no lineages of Bhikshuni precepts were ever established in Tibet.
This has left Tibetan Buddhist women in the somewhat ironic position of having to go to
Taiwan, Hong Kong, Chinese temples in the West, or (as in the case of the author) Korea in
order to gain the complete bhikshuni ordination.
The author presents a thorough and balanced introduction, comparative analysis, and
forward-looking conclusion along with the two translations. Those who are inclined to
favor more traditional Buddhist priorities in the presentation of Vinaya topics may find
occasional cause for the raised eyebrow in a few digressive passages such as: "The
restitution of the Bhiksuni Sangha would stand as a symbol of women's spiritual power and
equality and serve as a bridge linking women in Buddhist cultures with women's movements
in other countries. ...the bonds of friendship and cooperation developed between Asian
Buddhist women and Western feminists have been extremely valuable for both sides. ... the
reestablishment of the order of fully ordained Buddhist nuns has far-reaching implications
for the feminist movement in Asia." (p.xi)
This work also contains a few examples of a mild tendency to give fairly automatic
credence to the academic buddhologist's reflexive discounting of standard Buddhist tenets.
For instance: "Although modern scholarship questions their validity, traditional
renditions of this incident recount that the Buddha hesitated three times before admitting
these women to the order . . ." (p.19)
Of course anyone who has expended significant effort in the study of academic
buddhology knows that "modern scholarship" questions nearly every aspect of
Buddhist tradition. A large number of these indictments are made purely on the grounds of
mere circumstantial evidence or outright hubristic opinionation in scholarly guise. This
failure to subject the academic buddhological discipline to the rigors of a truly
scientific method results in the writings of modern buddhologists being rife with cases of
mere opinion being enshrined on the level of "fact." Thus for an aspect of
tradition to be the subject of scholarly doubt is not particularly noteworthy in a
Buddhist context except where a solid scientific basis is presented for possessing the
doubt. Thus whenever one runs into the "modern scholarship questions. . ."
phrase, it's tempting to wonder if this isn't simply a figleaf covering for opinions of
On the whole, though, instances of this sort in this work are extremely mild and
well-balanced, especially when compared with much of modern buddho-feminist rhetoric
wherein it is now quite common to automatically attribute any ideas the least bit
dissonant to the feminist ear as "later patriarchal accretions" or as examples
of the Buddha somehow being helpless to transcend the oppressive patriarchal norms of his
Sisters in Solitude is an important, timely and well-presented work of
great interest to the limited audience for which it is appropriate reading. This is a very
helpful work for facilitating an understanding among monks and nuns of both Tibetan and
Chinese traditions of how extremely closely the precepts of the two traditions resemble
each other. In fact the differences are extremely slight and limited to minor details in
only a few of the more than three hundred regulations at issue. Realization of this fact
may help somewhat in enhancing respect between monastics of the two traditions and may
also be helpful in producing a solidly-established tradition of Dharmagupta precept
lineage bhikshunis whose doctrinal affiliation is with either Gelug or Kagyu Tibetan
Due to the legally dependent relationship between bhikshuni and bhikshu sanghas
established by the monastic legal codes, it is highly unlikely that there can ever be a
lineage of Tibetan-affiliated bhikshunis who will not be constrained to return to East
Asian monastic communities for receipt of the precepts within the context of that thriving
bhikshuni tradition. In short, it is not traditionally considered even plausible for one
bhikshuni precept lineage to graft itself onto an existing bhikshu monastic community of
another precept lineage.
This may remain an open question in some quarters, however, and it is very important
that the concept be given a complete, honest and fair hearing by the Sanghas of each of
these precept lineages. Even if such "grafting" is not allowed to take place
there is certainly nothing to prevent Tibetan tradition monks and the laypeople who
support them from according the highest level of respect, hospitality and support to nuns
who happen to have received the Buddha's precepts from another precept lineage.
Whether or not such a grafting per se is ever allowed to take place, Sisters in
Solitude still goes a long way at least towards facilitating a comfortable working
relationship which should allow Dharmagupta lineage bhikshunis to occupy a position of
unquestioned respect among the Mulasarvastivadin bhikshus and laypeople of the Tibetan
traditions. In the final analysis, whether or not a tradition of Dharmagupta lineage nuns
successfully establishes itself in a state of at least unofficial coexistence alongside
the Mulasarvastivadin monks of the Tibetan tradition is an enterprise which will likely
stand or fall on the bhikshunis' collective ability to at least engender a modicum of the
spirit of the eight dharmas of respect laid down by the Buddha himself as absolute
preconditions for the existence of a bhikshuni sangha. Certainly if the eight dharmas are
just laughed off as some sort of grotesque anachronism, this would not bode well for the
success of the venture.
In the interest of understanding this reviewer's comment about "the limited
audience for which this text is appropriate reading," one who is thinking of studying
this book should at least consider the following: Traditionally, it is held to be
inappropriate for the laity to concern themselves with the study of monastic regulations.
Although this convention is sometimes interpreted by some laypeople or scholars as a
thinly-veiled monastic formulation geared to keep the behavior of monks and nuns beyond
the critical scrutiny of the lay community, the monastic explanation for this convention
is that the karmic liabilities for laypeople in criticism of the fine points of monastic
behavior are particularly severe and thus it is in the best karmic interests of the laity
to concern themselves primarily with issues related to their own cultivation.
That said, Sisters in Solitude is highly recommended reading for that
audience for which it is appropriate. The author is to be commended for taking the
initiative to produce this very valuable and pioneering work while also taking care to
focus the presentation to one which is straightforward, balanced and not unduly burdened
with polemical and political considerations lying beyond the scope of the proper
priorities of Buddhist spiritual cultivation.